Anita Desai – ‘The Zigzag Way’: cultural and translation problems of an Indian-Mexican encounter

Anita Desai’s latest novel, ‘The Zigzag Way’ (London. Chatto & Windus, 2004) will come as something of a puzzle both to readers of her earlier work and critics who have read her as a standard-bearer of postcolonial writing. This offering by the India-born writer contains no Indian characters at all: it is set in Mexico with flashbacks to the US (New England – Harvard and a Maine fishing village) and England (Cornwall). The main character Eric, a young researcher and author of a thesis on immigration patterns, is an American of Cornish origin whose grandfather, a miner, emigrated to Mexico, returning to Cornwall on his wife’s death in childbirth. In Mexico to follow his girlfriend Em, a medical researcher, Eric arrives in an obscure mining town in search of his family past. On, the way he encounters the enigmatic Doña Vera, a onetime Viennese dancer who runs an hacienda doubling as an ethnological research institute, despite never having published anything herself. **

None of the protagonists, then, are Mexican: Desai’s novel is about Europeans and/or Americans losing, finding or seeking roots in the alien environment of Mexico. The gradually unveiled history of the mining community reveals a past of exploitation by the mineowners under the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, interrupted by the (ambivalently viewed) revolution of Emiliano Zapata. Eric speaks little Spanish, while Doña Vera, who could be either a refugee from fascism or a Nazi supporter, is a native speaker of neither English nor Spanish and, according to some evil tongues, does not even speak the language of the Huichol ‘indios’ whose cause she serves. Eric, his ancestors and Vera are all displaced individuals, migrants with more than one identity and, to a greater or lesser extent, lacking in integration with the Mexican surroundings described. **

This is the first time Anita Desai has published a novel set totally outside India, although its predecessor, ‘Fasting, Feasting’, was half-set in the US, and her 2000 volume of stories, ‘Diamond Dust’, included narratives located in, significantly, Cornwall and Mexico. By writing on non-Indian themes Desai follows in the recent footsteps of Rushdie and Vikram Seth, much of whose later work has been set wholly or partly outside the subcontinent. Critics might be tempted to seek hidden analogies between India and Mexico, or to see this novel as a third-worldist denunciation of imperialism, but the text does not seem to support any such reading. India is not mentioned once (unless, as is possible, Em’s cat, called Shakespeare, embodies a hidden allusion to Raja Rao’s novel ‘The Cat and Shakespeare’), and the book’s exploiters are native Mexicans, not Americans. Rather, ‘The Zigzag Way’ seems best read as an instance of what might be called ‘new globalised Indian writing’, the assumption being that with India as a rising power in the global economy, it is legitimate for Indian writers to shift their gaze further afield and examine other cultures’ worlds – looking into those cultures in and for their own sake, not as analogues or opposites of India, and independently of whether they are first-world countries or emerging economies like Mexico. We might say that some Indian writers, at least, are increasingly participants in a new modernity of collective and indiviudual displacement and complex, shifting intercultural imbrication. **

There is also the question of authenticity: how well does Anita Desai know the Mexico she narrates? Her novel text is liberally sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases, including Mexicanisms like ‘zopilote’ (turkey buzzard – p. 68), but it is not clear from the internal evidence how far her grasp of spoken and written Spanish actually extends (in the credits at the end she cites only one text in Spanish). Nor is it clear how much Mexican literature she might have read or how far she would wish to place her novel in the line of comparison with Latin American writing. In ‘Diamond Dust’ she quoted Octavio Paz (but in English): in this book Doña Vera, with her links to the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (p. 74), bears a (passing and partial) resemblance to Rosario Castellanos – novelist, defender of the Chiapas ‘indios’ and collaborator with the same institute – and indeed to some of Castellanos’ characters (like Francisca in Castellanos’ ‘Balún Canán’, Vera is the equestrian mistress of an hacienda) – but the analogy goes only so far and is partly cancelled out by Vera’s dubious past, so that the question of Desai’s relationship with Mexican literature, and its depth or otherwise, remains an open book. **

The authenticity question is also likely to pose problems for the Spanish translator (as far as I know the book is not yet out in Spanish). Should this novel logically be confided to a Mexican translator, or to one from anywhere in the Hispanophone world? A Mexican translator would obviously take maximum care with the Mexicanisms, which a Spanish or Argentine translator might be tempted to minimise, replace or gloss. On the other hand, a version done by a Mexican might end up excessively naturalising or ‘domesticating’ a text that, while about Mexico, represents non-Mexican perceptions from both author’s and characters’ viewpoints (albeit this problem would not arise for other Spanish-speaking readers, who might indeed even need a glossary of Mexicanisms!). The strategy adopted will need to be partly dependent on a critical evaluation of this book’s authenticity as a portrait of Mexico – a task surely best performed by a Spanish-speaking critic, preferably Mexican and conversant with Desai’s earlier work. This puzzling novel brings out with all clarity how criticism and translation are now becoming complex multicultural phenomena, quite as much conditioned by globalisation as the primary literature that they serve. Those scholars who explore both Indian and Hispanic universes will await the Spanish translation of Desai-on-Mexico with great interest!

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